Image: RATINGStatement: “Because we have so many canyons, because we have over 4,000 square miles to cover, because over half of that is rural, there are a lot of challenges,” Dania Brett of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless said in a Jan. 18 Voice of San Diego story.

Determination: True

Analysis: Hundreds of San Diegans spread across the county early Friday in search of unsheltered homeless people.

There were numerous challenges associated with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless’ annual count.

Ahead of the Friday effort, count organizer Dania Brett warned volunteers of a specific hurdle: San Diego County’s sheer size and geography.

“We can’t cover every canyon, and we can’t cover every inch of the river beds,” she said.

Brett said the county encompassed more than 4,000 square miles and that more than half of it could be considered rural.

We decided Brett’s numbers were worth checking because San Diego ‘s densely populated areas get far more attention than its rural areas. Vetting Brett’s claim provides a chance to learn more about the dynamics of the county’s rural areas, and just how one defines a rural area.

Determining the size of the county was fairly straightforward.

Ross Martin of the San Diego Geographic Information Source, which is operated by the city and the county, said the county’s area includes 4,261 square miles of land and water, including San Diego Bay and Mission Bay, so Brett’s statement about the size of the county is accurate.

Next, we took a closer look at her claim about the county’s rural population. That required a good definition of a rural area.

San Diego County officials use a technical definition — or they don’t define rural at all.

The San Diego Association of Governments, the countywide regional planning agency, doesn’t classify urban or rural areas but instead cites land-use categories.

The county, meanwhile, applies state and U.S. Census classifications.

Those definitions are largely based on what can’t be considered an urban area.

In 2000, the Census Bureau generally classified urban areas as census blocks with at least 1,000 people per square mile and surrounding blocks with at least 500 per square mile. Census blocks are generally small but can vary greatly in size, as a Census Bureau geographer explained in a 2011 blog post.

The state also incorporates some data from the federal U.S. Geological Survey.

But why rely on 2000 Census figures and definitions when new information was presumably released after the 2010 Census?

Martin, who manages the county’s data mapping efforts, said 2010 Census figures included inaccurate or outdated city boundaries that could have translated into significant errors. He said the SANDAG is working with federal officials to correct discrepancies.

Using the 2000 data, Martin said San Diego County is composed of 1,019 miles of urban area and 3,242 miles of rural area.

That means about 76 percent of the county can be considered rural and about 24 percent urban.

Martin acknowledged some communities including Chula Vista, Lakeside and Ramona expanded in the early-to-mid-2000s but that growth dramatically slowed during the recession.

As a result, he doesn’t think the county’s urban-to-rural ratio has radically changed since 2000.

That means Brett’s comment that “over half” of the county is rural is true, based on the county’s definitions.

The federal Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Rural Health Policy also have their own definitions for rural areas. A post on the Rural Health Policy site highlights the pitfalls associated with each classification.

We stuck with the county’s figures because they incorporated both U.S. Census and state-specific information.

The San Diego Geographic Information Source office provided this map to illustrate the county’s rural areas:

Graphic provided by the San Diego Geographic Information Source

As the map illustrates, much of San Diego County’s rural population is in the eastern portion of the county, though there are smaller patches throughout.

Commander Mike Barletta of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department supervises the 30 deputies who patrol much of county’s rural lands. He said deputies in the Rural Enforcement Division live in the areas they patrol at least four days a week so they can respond to calls around the clock and drive four-wheel drive vehicles.

These deputies face challenges similar to those some volunteers dealt with during last week’s attempt to track the county’s homeless population. They traverse rugged terrain and sometimes struggle to locate callers seeking assistance.

Rural San Diego County may not be thought of as a hub for the homeless but Barletta’s deputies were part of a contingent of law enforcement agencies across the county that shared information with the homelessness task force last week.

Brett, who coordinated with Barletta and other police leaders across the county, said it was important to look for homeless people in these areas to get a true sense of what officials face in the fight against homelessness. Rural areas present both a smaller potential volunteer pool and more area to cover, she said.

“I’m wondering exactly how many people we’re missing,” she said.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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